Stinchcomb overcomes injuries to have career season

NEW ORLEANS -- By the time Jon Stinchcomb finished cutting off the athletic tape that sheathed both ankles and glanced up to see a familiar visitor hovering at his locker stall, Saturday night had just about turned into Sunday morning.

And given that the New Orleans Saints had not yet morphed into playoff pumpkins and had advanced to the franchise's first NFC Championship Game with their divisional playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, the team's starting right offensive tackle was turning a little emotional.

"To be just one win away from going to a Super Bowl ... I mean, who would have thought it?" said Stinchcomb, with just a hint of tears in his eyes. "Whew. It almost leaves you speechless, really. It's next to impossible to describe. The road has been a tough one, that's for sure, for a lot of guys in here."

Certainly, Stinchcomb's personal pathway to the starting lineup has been riddled with potholes and marked by a few detours.

Unlike most of his teammates who were with the Saints in 2005, Stinchcomb was not victimized by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Having ruptured his right patella tendon during an August camp practice, the four-year veteran was splitting time between his home in suburban Atlanta and Athens, Ga., where he was rehabilitating the severe injury at the University of Georgia, his alma mater.

Before this city went underwater, Stinchcomb had gone under the knife, and the surgery left his NFL career in doubt.

So while teammates were in San Antonio, relegated to being football vagabonds, Stinchcomb fretted more about whether he ever would play football again, not where. Having appeared in just 10 games in his first two seasons, Stinchcomb made sure to update all his applications to medical school, which he will pursue after his football career has ended.

"I'm not going to compare what I went through with my knee and all to what other guys had to [endure] by being uprooted from their homes," said Stinchcomb, a second-round selection in the 2003 draft. "But it was hard. There was a lot of doubt. I guess all of this, though, the way this season is going, makes it worthwhile. We've really come together as a team."

Nowhere is that more evident than on the totally revamped offensive line, a unit that doesn't have a single starter in the same position he played a year ago.

In the spring, New Orleans traded venerable left tackle Wayne Gandy to Atlanta and moved Jammal Brown, the starting right tackle in 2005, into his spot. The Saints acquired center Jeff Faine, a former first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns, in a trade on draft weekend. They drafted Jahri Evans, a small-school tackle from Bloomsburg, in the fourth round and moved him to guard. And eight-year journeyman Jamar Nesbit, who bounced between guard and tackle much of his career, was moved permanently to the former spot.

Oh yeah, the Sean Payton staff also afforded Stinchcomb the chance to win a starting job, an opportunity he had been denied the previous summer because of the knee injury.

"He was a good, smart player," Payton said. "But he had to get healthy and get on the field."

There was a time, in August, when even Stinchcomb wasn't sure those things were possible. His knee swelled; there was considerable discomfort in the joint; and he missed practice time. Fortunately, none of the other contenders for the starting job at right tackle made a move to secure the position. And once Stinchcomb's surgically repaired knee responded to rest and treatment, he returned to practice and won the job pretty easily.

In a season in which the right tackle slot was not regarded as a strong one around the NFL, Stinchcomb might have rated as one of the top 10 players at the position in 2006. He played well enough that he is going to garner a strong contract as an unrestricted free agent, from the Saints or from someone else. And Stinchcomb, whose older brother Matt also played in the NFL before his career was prematurely ended by a back problem, definitely exemplifies the New Orleans offensive line.

It is not a unit that seems that impressive when you're watching the team play in person. But throw on a tape of any of their games and what you see is one Pro Bowl-caliber player (Brown) surrounded by a bunch of guys who are overachievers and who have melded nicely.

Said rookie Evans: "You can't have the top-rated offense in the league, like we did, and not have a good line. I mean, it just doesn't make sense."

Making sense of everything that has transpired for the Saints the past two seasons isn't particularly easy, either. It's an exercise, quite frankly, in which Stinchcomb doesn't invest much time anymore. He is, like his teammates, riding a wave of momentum.

And in his case, a rush of emotion.

"Sometimes, when the road is easy," Stinchcomb said, "you don't appreciate it nearly as much as we appreciate everything that is going on with this team right now. Everything we've been through personally and collectively has definitely enhanced this experience."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.